Saturday, 21 September 2013

Article - Mountain Gorilla Trekking In Rwanda and Uganda

My most memorable moment should be when I connected with a mother gorilla.   She was within touching distance, clasping her baby to her chest and our eyes met over its little head.   It was one of those life-changing moments communicating silently with this gentle beast.   Instead the bit that sticks in my mind was the ‘tourist from hell’ pushing past everyone, waving her ipad in one hand and yelling, ‘I have to get a photo! It’s my birthday!’

But she also gave me one of my funniest memories.   I can still picture our guide’s face when, concerned the gorillas weren’t co-operating with her birthday plans, she offered to retrieve two apples from her backpack to entice the gorillas out of the undergrowth!

Thank goodness there are strict rules to protect this endangered species from humans.  Contact with the gorillas is limited to an hour.  Tourists are not allowed to advance more than 7 meters towards the gorillas, but this does not stop the gorillas advancing on us!  

We were grouped together on a narrow pathway watching 4 gorillas when a large male seemed to be interested in us and ambled over to take a closer look.  We scrambled around, but there was nowhere to go, the undergrowth was too dense, and more gorillas were blocking our retreat further down the path.    Following instructions, we crouched down and tried to avoid eye contact.  The guides made soothing growling noises deep in their throats.  The silverback laid a hand on the arm of one trekker, leaned on the thigh of another reaching past her head to grab what was obviously the most desirable fern leaf in the national park.   Prize in hand, he went back to his original 7 meter position, while we tried to get our heart beats back to normal and congratulated each other on not giving way to hysteria!   But I wondered:  was he entertaining himself at our expense?  

We trekked in two different national parks: Volcanoes NP in Rwanda and Bwindi Impenetrable NP in Uganda.  The two parks are close geographically, but humans have to drive a circuitous route and endure a border crossing (with wondrous African bureaucracy) to get from one to the other.   This is a mountainous region: covered with dense forests intermingled with more open areas packed with ferns.   The ferns grow closely together and so high that a gorilla can easily hide under them.   The black fur of the youngsters and the grey of mature silverbacks just disappears, and only the moving fern leaves gives them away.

Even though gorillas live in family groups, they spread out over a wide area foraging for food.   Females can put away 18 kilos of vegetation and a male almost double that a day!   So opportunities to see them interacting as a group were limited.   I would have liked to sit a while and watch the gorillas socialize.   Instead we spent our time chasing individuals as they moved in search of food.

The two treks were quite different.   Most of the trek in the Volcanoes NP was under forest trees, whereas in Bwindi Impenetrable NP we were pushing our way through thick ferns.   Each habituated gorilla family has trackers assigned to them, so their location is always known, but the guides build suspense by pretending this isn’t the case.   A habituated gorilla family has been gradually introduced to humans and is more accepting of paparazzi than most celebrities.

In Rwanda, our assigned gorilla family, the Amahoro, were scattered over both sides of a deep ravine, but mainly on the wrong side, of course.   We enjoyed the antics of 3 youngsters from a distance, until our guides decided it was time to get closer.   We had to slide down the steep hillside, clutching at stinging nettles, and clambered up the other side using vines as ropes.   I felt like an apprentice Tarzan, but it was well worth the effort.   I don’t know how many of the family of 19 we saw, but I reckon it was nearly all.  

You can distinguish different gorillas by their nose shapes, but despite having hundreds of photos to study, I still haven’t managed to get the hang of it!

Thursday, 5 September 2013

Journal - Last day! Wednesday 14 November

Today was my last day at the classroom.    I did days of the week again, but by now that Addams Family tune was driving me nuts!   I couldn’t get it out of my head.  The children love it but really only remember the first line.   I’d found some good ideas encouraging the children to participate which included getting them to write on the board.   We started on learning the words for body parts.

During lunch time, I decided to encourage two of the smaller children write on the board.  It was funny at first, the way they imitated the older children by trying to write the alphabet.   Then it wasn’t so funny as they started squabbling over the markers, and it turned into a real fight!   I pulled them apart, managed to get a wriggling, yelling child under each arm, and then dragged them over to the steps.   Luckily two mothers came to my rescue!   One child had a blood nose and I’m sure the other lost chunks of hair!  There was much clucking and sounds of disapproval from the mothers, and I felt really guilty. 


The afternoon class was slow and long.   The children didn’t want to wear their name tags, and had lost interest in th
e games.   I managed to do a few things, but it was hard work.   It must have been a tough morning in real school, and they were tired.

Finally it came time to say goodbye to everyone.   Parting from the children was difficult, I hated saying goodbye.  

 In the shortest of times, I had come to know them and to be so fond of them. Angry Birds who would get upset so quickly, but equally was so affectionate.  Grumpy One who blamed everyone else for everything that went wrong.  I didn’t need to understand what he was saying to know what he meant!  Baggy Pants, left-handed and most probably dyslexic, who wrote laboriously, but was very deft at marbles.   Big Boy, who refused to go to Real School perhaps because he was bullied there?   Angel Face, with her winter pyjamas always tightly buttoned, who wanted everything neat and clean and just so.   TomBoy, so unco-ordinated that she would skip wildly, arms and legs going everywhere, and never get past the count of three!

I was still feeling sad hours later as the plane left Siem Reap.  I had a last beautiful view, looking down on that amazing lake, a small fishing village and the setting sun.

Journal - The alphabet again! Monday 12 November

Shrimps were still in the kitchen – I was so worried that they would make an appearance at dinner tonight.  At this stage, I was going freely into the kitchen when I needed something.   It was a standard rule that no volunteers were allowed in the kitchen and for good reason.   They might notice the unhygienic conditions, like the dogs wandering in and out, no fly screen on the back door which had to be kept open because of the heat, food left uncovered, dirty plates left for hours, the lack of hot water.   But to be fair, I didn’t get sick the whole time I was there.

Back to school and alphabet revision again!!  The morning kids were keen and worked hard, but the afternoon group was already tired from school, and not so keen.  I was tired and gave up.  I should have let them do some colouring-in etc, but I was exhausted and let them go home early.   I felt guilty later.   I looked back to my first day when I thought that the 2 hour lunch break was too long.  Now I just collapsing and enjoying the respite!

We decided to investigate the Buddhist pagoda on the way home.  We had driven past it every day, but no-one had been inside.   It always looked deserted, and it was!   I wandered around and finally found someone and asked if we could go in.   After much sign language and waving, someone finally arrived with a key, opened the door and let us in.  The walls were very brightly painted with Buddhist scenes.  And there were two boys inside working in the dark!    Unfortunately it was quite dark, and no-one could explain the paintings, but still it was an experience.   We walked over to the school next door and caused total disruption.   Some of our children saw us and came out to say hello, and that meant other children came out of class as well!  We decided to beat a hasty retreat.

Pork curry for dinner – saved from the shrimps!   The dinners were always tasty – Lom was a good cook.    We learnt over dinner that three doctors were arriving next week to do an assessment of the village children.  It was going to be a very busy week.    

Journal - Hugs, cuddles and vampires - Tuesday 13 November

I must have had a good night’s sleep, because my enthusiasm returned.   I had discovered the Addams Family tune and a song for the days of the week.   I’m not sure the children quite understood what days of the week were, but they loved the tune.  We wrote the days of the week on the board, and the children, with some assistance from Ravy, wrote it in Khymer.   This writing is definitely more like drawing.   The writer writes, then stands back, and adds dots or squiggles, or maybe a wavy line there?   

The children are getting more and more affectionate.  They love hugs and cuddles, and being tickled.   I watched a group of them playing make-believe games over lunch time, which included vampires, and wooden stakes, and the tuk-tuk as a coffin!

We saw a dead snake on the road on the way home.  I think it was poisonous and was a definite reminder that life isn’t so idyllic.  I had been thinking about how different their lives are, no computers, no television, running around with their friends, riding bikes and playing football in the road, but there was a stark reminder that their life has its own dangers, dirty water, poor sanitation, lack of education, and snakes!  

Journal - Kampong Phluk - Sunday 11 November 2012

I was so excited.   We were going to Kampong Phluk, another floating village on Tonle Sap lake.  We had to travel much further on the lake to reach the village.  Tracy had been invited to lunch by a local Cambodian, Sot.  It was his family house, and we were all going.   I was thrilled to be included.    Of course, we had to bring the food, as a local family could not be expected to feed all these foreigners!

We needed two tuk-tuks to carry us all.   It was about an hour and a half drive to the boat hiring place on the edge of the lake, and then half an hour by boat to the actual village.   The price for the boat had to be negotiated with the senior boat man, and he allocated a boat and driver to us.  

The men in our group were pleased that we had bargained successfully and got a good price.   But we soon realized that we were on the slowest boat as everyone else whizzed past us, and then we discovered that we had a time restriction and would have to leave Kampong Phluk as soon as we got there.   A few phone calls back to the manager were required and we had to pay more!!

The houses in this floating village were all on stilts, no houseboats here.   It was laid out just like a normal village.  There were main traffic routes, and then smaller side roads, and little alleyways.   Sot’s house had a side road out front, and an alleyway out back where the neighbours were much closer.  Both entrances had ladders down to the water.  The front one, had two additional landings on which animals were kept, a pigpen and a chicken coop.  

The house was fairly open plan, but with sections that could be divided by curtains, and there was one area that was more permanently enclosed, but I’m not sure what it was used for.  The floor inside was solid planking with a few gaps – not like our school house!  Outside on what I am calling the front, there was an area that was used for general living, with a couple of hammocks, and the kitchen.   The kitchen had a different flooring, which was more open to with lots of gaps to allow scraps and rubbish to fall through to the water below.

It was hard to differentiate, but I think there were 3 families living in the house.   There was a grandmother who had lived through the Pol Pot years, that Tracy was hoping to interview, but she was off at the Buddhist temple.    The Cambodian ladies got busy preparing the meal.  The foreigners weren’t allowed to get involved, so I busied myself taking photos of village life from the back door, and playing with the children.    

This is a photo of some of the neighbours. 

First course for lunch was raw shrimp from the lake and chilies.  The idea was to wrap a shrimp in a green leaf and pop it in your mouth!   I tried to find the smallest shrimp and the biggest leaf, and then declined anymore.   I thought it was too risky!   The chicken and rice that followed was more to my liking.

After lunch, we went by boat to a jetty area where all the Cambodians hang out on the weekends.   It was really strange, like the first stage of a big building, just the beams.  So people would perch on and hang off the beams, and dive into the water.  We weren’t that brave.  After all the village wasn’t that far away, and we were aware of what was being thrown into the water!

All too soon, it was time to make the boat trip back.   What chaos awaited us.   I hadn’t realized how many people were out on the lake, and all return to one central point, and then down one narrow track to the main road.  What a  traffic jam! Apparently there had been a major festival celebrated at Grandma’s Buddhist temple, and there were so many tourist buses blocking the way.  Just the traffic would have been nightmare enough, but add to that heat and dust, and there were some very unhappy people about!

We ran out of petrol on the way back, but this wasn’t the problem I thought it would be.  Someone appeared very quickly with petrol in a plastic container and sold us enough petrol to get home!  Apparently this is normal. 

The left over shrimps came home with us.  I was perturbed as they had sat in the sun for a large part of the time, and were covered in dust from the ride.   

When we got home, we were too exhausted to go out.   Had toast and peanut butter for dinner – definitely didn’t want the shrimps.   Claire would have been horrified.   She had calculated exactly how many slices we were allowed to eat each day, and we were most probably eating our breakfast!

Journal - Finishing off the Temples - Saturday 10 November

I was up before the neighbours to be ready at 6am for Simorn and his tuk-tuk, for my final day of temple viewing.  We stopped for breakfast – a banana wrapped in sticky rice mixed coconut milk wrapped in a banana leaf and grilled over an open brazier.   Chuom bought four for US$1, he ate two, I ate one, and we gave the last one to a little girl and received an enormous smile in payment. 

When the temples were done, we headed out to the floating village in Tonle Sap lake.  This is the largest freshwater lake in South East Asia, and it expands or shrinks dramatically depending on the season.  From 2,700 sq kms to 16,000 sq kms!  The floating village consisted of house boats, a school boat and shop boats.  The police station looked more permanent.  The boats are towed around to different positions by motor boats, depending on the weather and the water level.  

  On the way back I stopped to take some photos of a ‘bridge’, which was just a large undressed tree trunk between the houses.  I walked all the way down to the water, down a little alleyway, past houses on stilts, and could see right into their homes.  It seemed a very poor area, with lots of rubbish, and undressed children, but everyone was welcoming and there were big smiles.  I was too embarrassed to take photos, I felt I was invading their privacy.  But I saw quite a few big TV screens!

Journal - Test Day – Friday 9th November

I was really worried about what was going to happen on test day.   So far Elaine and I had done nearly all the teaching and we improvised as we went along.   I looked for ideas on the internet in the evening, and we would try it out the next day.  So it had been extremely haphazard.   I didn’t want to give a test to these children.  It smacked too much of real school and we weren’t a school.   We couldn’t force the children to come.   We needed them to want to come.  And I didn’t want any of them to think they had failed.  They all tried so hard.  If we provided the children with a vision of a different life, of something to dream for, then I thought we had achieved something.  We didn’t need tests.

For the first time I went to school with a feeling of dread.   The children were waiting for us as usual, but so many children!  There were children everywhere.  Children we had never seen before.

What Tracy hadn’t know was that she had chosen the worst possible day to hold the test, a school holiday!  It was going to be worse than even I had imagined.   Tracy selected which children would do the test in the morning and who would sit the test in the afternoon.   All those children not included in the test would remain outside.    Easier said than done as all the children outside wanted to see what was happening inside.   It was really unfortunate that we hadn’t known about the holiday.  A wasted opportunity when we could have made our classroom look inviting and fun to those children who hadn’t been before.  Instead we locked them out and chased them away!

We had to protect the children writing the test to give them a fair chance.  Ravy locked the front door, but he couldn’t lock the back door because they needed the ventilation.  So boys climbed into the vegetable garden and swarmed up the posts.  I was outside on my own, and found it impossible to control the children.  There were about 40 children running everywhere.  Tracy, Ravy and Elaine were inside holding the test, and then marking papers.  I was pleased I wasn’t inside, but boy, it was tough going outside.  I tried to get some games going, but it was impossible.   I had to spend my time pulling kids off the steps and out of the vegetable garden.   What a nightmare!

Tracy had originally decided that only those children with full marks were going to get a prize.  There were children who had tried really hard, but whose learning
wasn’t at the same level as others.  They just didn’t know enough to get full marks but had made an enormous effort.  Tracy quickly realised that her plan could backfire, so she gave out prizes for effort as well as achievement.   But that meant there weren’t any prizes left for the afternoon test!

Lunch-time was spent improvising and trying to make more prizes.   It was at this stage that I discovered many hidden treasures in the classroom boxes!  If only I’d known earlier!

To end a nightmare day, Elaine lost her camera on the way home.   We drove back and forth, and even walked along the road trying to search every puddle, but couldn’t find it.  Poor Elaine was devastated.
This is a picture of the road we travelled on each day, so you can see how difficult it was to find the phone once it had fallen out the tuk-tuk!

Everyone went out that night to celebrate Ravy’s birthday  and to farewell Sally who was off to India the next day, with the sleepy friend who had emerged about 3 times in total from her bed!  A few wines took the edge off an exhausting day.  

Journal - Ravy’s Birthday and sewing - Thursday – 8 November 2012

It was Ravy’s birthday, our driver and interpreter.   We sang the happy birthday song at every opportunity. The children loved it, and so did Ravy.  He pretended he was too cool for all this nonsense, but found it hard to keep the smile off his face.

It was sewing day today,  so Claire and Sally accompanied us to school.  We did the alphabet again!  Even I am getting tired of the alphabet, but it is difficult to know what else to do, as they are all at such different levels.  I have searched on the internet, but most games seem to assume a basic level of equipment such as a solid floor, or resources, such as flash cards.

I have re-written all the name tags.  And now each one has a name tag that I can read.   I also bought some exercise books, so each child could have their own book.  I was told that the children would take advantage if books were freely available and wouldn’t look after them.   I found this difficult to understand or believe, and I decided to use my initiative to buy books.

Sewing lessons took over the classroom in the afternoon.   One girl had finished the project, a little bag, and proudly displayed it to all her friends.  This meant that all the girls now wanted to learn to sew, and there just wasn’t enough teachers, or needles!  Claire and I struggled to re-thread needles, untie knots, and give assistance.   The boys and girls not involved in sewing wanted to play with the games in the classroom, as they had done on previous days.  But suddenly they couldn’t.   More stress for Claire and I!   I gave airplane-making lessons to try and divert them.  But that meant I wasn’t helping with the sewing!   It was chaotic.

Tracy must have felt the need to take control of the situation and impose some discipline, because she suddenly announced that tomorrow would be a test day.  She gave the children a lecture about how important it was for them to learn so they could get good jobs and look after their families.  Luckily most of them couldn't understand a word she was saying.   

Journal - No breakfast and red ants - Wednesday 7 November 2013

Not a good start.  When we got up in the morning, there was no breakfast.   Well, there was dry cornflakes, but no milk, no bread and no water.  Apparently we had eaten our bread allowance as afternoon snacks!   Luckily I had some rations.   Everyone blamed everyone else.   I was very unhappy.  Surely it was not that hard to organize the food!   Apparently we were supposed to use our initiative and organize it ourselves.   This must mean Elaine and I as we are the only Indians in a place full of chiefs.

Then we found that our classroom had been invaded by red ants.  Elaine and I started sweeping vigorously.  But the more we swept, the more ants there were.  Finally I went downstairs to have a look – they were climbing up from a nest in the ground next to one of the supports. They seemed to have come with the rain!  Luckily the village chief (a real one for a change) who lived next door, gave us a rag soaked in turpentine, which he wrapped around the post.   And poured more turps into the ant nest.  

Finally we were ready to start teaching.   We had a very full class in the morning.  We hope that the word was spreading about our efforts.  We went over the alphabet again and again.  We sang it, we shouted it, and then we broke it into sections and did actions in between each section.  We had alphabet charts on the wall with ‘i for ice’ and ‘s for snowman’.  It seemed so inappropriate.  Did these kids even know what snow was, let alone a snowman? 

Tracy had prepared sheets of paper with alphabet characters and words for the children to trace over.   They would draw the words, rather than write them, moving the paper around and using a ruler for all the straight lines. 

I had made paper airplanes the previous day with some of the boys, which were a huge success.  Today the little boy in shiny red pyjamas, which he wore most days, wanted one of my sleek jet-streamed airplanes, but unfortunately I didn’t know what he wanted.   We both got pretty frustrated!  It was so difficult to communicate.   The children managed better than I did by waving a finger at me, and saying ‘t-CHER No!’  or giving me a big smile and ‘t-CHER yes’ when I got it right!

I was getting to know the children and recognizing their different personalities.  I found their names difficult to remember, and gave some of them nicknames, like Angry Birds, Bruce (who thought he was Bruce Lee), Red Pyjamas, Little Miss Toughie.

I continue to be amazed at how keen they are to learn.   Even the Cool Marble Gang sit quietly in class and write laboriously in their exercise books, in between kicking the kid in front, or quickly borrowing an eraser when no-one was looking.  We had very little furniture and chairs had to double as desks.  

The children were at different levels and different ages.  So it was difficult to keep them occupied constructively.  Some children took much longer to finish an exercise than others.  Those that finish quickly get bored and noisy, but can’t be allowed to interrupt those still struggling on or they will take even longer.   And don’t think those still going will give up!   No, even the slowest one keeps plodding on whilst chaos breaks out all around.   They only get upset if someone blocks their view of the board.  I’ve tried to help some by guiding their hands – very difficult with left-handed children as I am right-handed.  Some let me help, but then start over again on their own!

The children are getting less inhibited and I get more hugs and cuddles every day.   Angry Birds was reduced to tears today and I sat down on his chair and pulled him onto my lap for a big cuddle.  Some children were laughing, but he didn’t care, he loved it.

Little Miss Toughie wore a woolen Christmas
hat to school today!  In 36 degree heat!  Most children wear western pyjamas, often flannelette or shiny polyester.  Both look unbearably hot to me, but I found it hard to keep a straight face when a Mum and her two children turned up all wearing matching winter pyjamas!

Journal - Rain Storm - Tuesday 6 November 2012

We had to stop class in the afternoon because of the noise on the tin roof.   Some of the children ran about in the rain.  They just loved it, some with their clothes on, and some with their clothes off!  There are water pumps positioned regularly throughout the village, and it appears that all bathing and washing takes place there.  This was a chance to have an extra shower. 

Many of the children were very worried about their exercise books and wanted us to keep them in a safe place in the classroom.   Hopefully they will remain dry.  The classroom is not well built, and is definitely not waterproof.

There was a new boy today, perhaps 5 or 6 years old, so cute with big eyes and openly affectionate.   And as soon as the other children saw him giving the teacher a cuddle, I started getting a lot of hugs.   I had read that the Cambodians don’t like to be touched, especially on their heads.  These children loved to have a cuddle, boys and girls, and I would often give their heads a little caress as I walked by.  They all seemed to like this.   I would sit on the steps at lunch time, counting for whoever was skipping, usually surrounded by a few children.   The little ones would pat and caress, and then slip in a pinch or two!

Journal - Back to Work – Monday 5 November 2012

My neighbours wake up early to start their daily tasks before it gets too hot.   The noise of cooking and sweeping, and preparing for the day, means that I am also awake at 5.30am.   My room is on the corner of the house, with windows on two sides.   With the windows open and the fan on, the heat is bearable.  There is no hot water, but so far this isn’t a problem.

Breakfast is fresh fruit, cornflakes, bread or toast, and tea or coffee.    We collect our lunches and head off to meet the children.   We stop on the way for US$2 petrol and pick up bottles of water.   
The children were ready and waiting for us as we arrived in the tuk-tuk, and climb on board as we slow down for the corner.  I’m pleased that the children remember me from Friday.

 I try my hand at being ‘teacher’, and write the alphabet on the whiteboard in alternate colours, red and blue.   I’d rub a letter out and choose a child to come up, select the correct colour and fill in the missing letter.  They love to write in their exercise books, but I was worried to see that some were using books that obviously weren’t theirs.  Some didn’t bring books, and were given sheets of paper, reluctantly.   I didn’t understand this parsimony.  Exercise books are so cheap, and the children obviously treasured them.    

During lunch time – a 2 hour break – we talked about the fact that as the population is so young there are not many grandparents to look after children.  No-one mentioned the fact that most of the grandparents had been killed.   I asked about land ownership and was told that only Cambodians can buy land, but a foreigner can buy airspace.  It took a few more questions before I realized that this meant foreigners can buy apartments.  

The marble gang came to the care center that afternoon.  Marbles is a deadly serious game.   I found a marble but I wasn’t allowed to play.   Boys only and not all boys, only those belonging to the Cool Gang.   I haven’t quite worked out all the membership requirements but owning marbles definitely helps.   Wearing a shirt doesn’t help, and your pyjama bottoms should be very loose and nearly falling of your behind.   Surprisingly, skipping doesn’t detract from your coolness even when your pyjama bottoms fall off!
I was a bit concerned that the marble gang would disrupt the class, but no, they were as keen to learn as any of the other children.

There are about 5 puppies that live next door.  They are very cute with short pale coloured hair, but have fleas and all sorts of mangy bits.   I was offered a puppy to cuddle, and although it did look very cute, I just couldn’t bring myself to hold it.  The children obviously have fleas, as some of the older girls groom the hair of the younger ones, and I had no problem hugging or cuddling them.   But the puppies were a step too far for me! The kids love the puppies and play with them a lot, sometimes quite roughly.   But I get the feeling that they aren’t really regarded as pets.  There are a lot of dogs wandering around, usually busy mating, and I am sure that dog meat is a staple food. 

Journal - Angkor Wat - Sunday 4 November 2012

Temples, temples and more temples!  I started at 7.30am.  And it was already so busy, but most tourists were on their way back for breakfast, after seeing the sunrise.   I had emphasized that I disliked crowds, and I was told that the quietest times for viewing was while other tourists were eating their breakfast or their lunch, and this worked well. 

My guide was Chuom Cheak, his English was excellent, although it did take him a while to warm up.   The cost was US$25 for the day, and the tuk- tuk cost US$15.   

I quizzed Chuom on life in Cambodia.   I had already learnt that teachers are paid so poorly that parents have to supplement their income.   If the parents can’t afford a supplement, then their child will receive minimal attention from the teacher.  But it’s easy to pass exams, all that is required is an additional supplement!   We talked about Buddhism and re-incarnation.  Chuom wants to come back as me, that is white, wealthy (according to his standards) and residing in a first world country.  Can’t say I blame him!

This is one of the wonders of the world, and it is extremely impressive.  However, I did struggle to get a feeling for the people who had lived there.  

 I returned mid-afternoon ‘templed out’ to the Villa, and then headed into town with Tracy and Elaine. Elaine was from Perth Australia and had a lovely warm personality.   She was in the third week of a four week stint, and confided in me that she was exhausted and couldn’t wait to go home.   She had done volunteering before, and had always found it rather chaotic, but this was a new high for disorganization.

First stop was for a pedicure – one where the fish eat the dead skin off your feet.  The three of us did it together.  It was like perching on the edge of a kid’s paddling pool in an Aussie back yard.  It was so tickly at the start, but then you got used to it.   I didn’t want to put my feet on the bottom because of all the fish poo!   We had a lot of fun, chatting to passers-by, and teasing the children who kept trying to sell us things.   Those kids are so determined!  

We went for a massage afterwards, the three of us in a large room all at the same time.   The total cost for massage and pedicure was US$13.00 in total.

Journal - Being a tourist - Saturday 3 November 2012

We had planned to go into town and explore.   But it seemed that everyone had hangovers and there was a drama with the cat.  Poor thing had a large horrible boil or an ulcer, and we required a vet.  Sally was in charge of all the animals at the villa, which consisted of two badly behaved dogs and one cat.    The vet finally arrived on a scooter, along with the cutest little boy, who was too interested in the proceedings.   So I ended up entertaining him, so that mum could get on with the job.  It was very traumatic with the cat yowling.  

The others were too exhausted after all that stress, but I couldn’t afford to waste time, so decided to head off on my own.  We hadn’t booked the tuk-tuk so, the next door neighbor offered me a lift on the back of his motor-bike.  I didn’t need to say that I hadn’t been on the back of a bike for too many years to mention, one look at my face was enough.  Luckily for me Simorn drove rather sedately into town and dropped me off at Pub Street.  I wandered around but was rather disappointed with Siem Reap.  It seemed to be just another dirty, run-down Asian city.  

Simorn came back with the tuk-tuk and took me off to visit the Angkor National Museum.  Well worth a visit to try and understand the history of the area, but far too much to take in!  And I thought I had seen enough Buddha statutes to last me a life time.  I felt completely overloaded!  But I do recommend it.  I now wish that I had returned after my visit to Angkor.

This photo shows a man taking two pigs to market.  They were both alive!

Back home in time for dinner.   I’m not keen on eating out on my own, but also had to ensure that I got my monies worth back at the villa.   After all it’s fairly expensive accommodation!    

The evening was spent listening to Sally.   She was the heroine of so many adventures!  The reality was that she had been dragged from pillar to post by her parents as they tried to make their way in South Africa, Malta and now Cambodia.   She hadn’t been able to finish her schooling and was worried about what would become of her.   Her life had always been rather precarious, and to top it off her parents were separating.  My feelings towards Sally kept veering between irritation and sympathy.   She could be such a know-it-all and very negative about any suggestions, then the mask would slip and you could see a little girl lost and confused.  I wish her well.  She's a bright and caring girl who deserves more.

Journal - First Day at School - Friday 2 November 2012

We were located on the outskirts of Siem Reap and involved in a nearby newly established village.    The inhabitants had been evicted approximately 6 months earlier from the banks of the Mekong River.  There was surprising little about it on the internet,  but I found this site for those who want to know more:
The village wasn't as picturesque as my photo makes it appear.  Close up the pond is full of rubbish, and the village is barren without a tree in sight. 

I was assured that I didn’t need to do anything on my first day, just observe and get the hang of it.   The classroom was a little hut on stilts, that had been built by previous volunteers.  The floor was fragile, I had definitely seen stronger floorboards before.  In fact there was one large hole, usually covered by a chair, to try and prevent anyone falling through.   The classroom had a front door and a back door.   The front door had steps going up to it, and the back door opened onto the vegetable garden, but there were no steps, just a drop of over a metre.  The doors were the main source of ventilation.   The problem was that the afternoon sun poured in through the back door.  One of the best things was the newly finished concrete patio.  It was so good for games!

On that first day we had about 20 children in the morning, and 15 in the afternoon. Two children stayed for both sessions which was a problem because they should have been in school.   At this early stage, I thought the youngest was about 18 months old, but I subsequently learnt that she was at least 4 years.  It took me a while to adjust to the different levels of nutrition and development.

I was immediately impressed at how well the older children looked after the smaller ones.   There were very few arguments.   Those that did take place were short and sharp, and then life went on.    These children have so few toys that there was no such thing as boys’ toys and girls’ toys.  Everyone played with everything that came their way.   The boys loved to skip even more than the girls.  But marbles was the exception. 
 I noticed that only boys played marbles. 

I found that I couldn’t stand and observe.  Elaine was doing most of the teaching, whilst the others chatted amongst themselves.   It is impossible for one person to cope with 20 children, so I quickly found that I was sharpening pencils, and guiding little hands to write on their exercise books.

It was hot, and very dusty, and the children required a lot of energy, and I just loved being with them!

Journal - Arrival in Siem Reap - Thursday 1 November 2012

I love working with children and I love travel.   So what better way that to satisfy both these desires than by volunteering in a country I had not visited?  I've previously posted an article giving an overview of my experience, but what follows is my daily journal.

Arrival in Siem Reap -Thursday 1 November 2012 

I travelled by bus from Phom Penh to Siem Reap, and despite many text messages confirming arrangements, I had to wait for over an hour to be collected.  Luckily I was the only person waiting conspicuously as they had forgotten my name when they finally turned up!  But I immediately forgave all as they were 3 lovely bright bubbly girls: Tracy, Elaine and Sally, about 21 to 24 years old in a tuk-tuk driven by Ravy, our local interpreter and driver.   

Back at the villa there was one more young girl - who appeared to spend most of her time sleeping!   I had expected some older people.  Was that my prejudices showing?   But it was explained that the CEO, Phil, was in Cambodia, but had relocated himself to the other side of the country.  He was in the midst of a marital and health crisis.   Claire, his wife, was still hoping for a reconciliation,  but making valiant attempts to re-build her life and distance herself from the project.   Sally, their only child, is also trying to distance herself from this mess and was about to head off to India for 3 months with the friend who sleeps all the time! 

This left a large leadership void - intended to be filled by Tracy.  But as I discovered Phil and Claire were reluctant to give any real kind of authority to Tracy, after all, this was their livelihood.    With the benefit of hindsight, it was a recipe for disaster,  but luckily I didn’t realize all of this immediately.   That first night was spent listening and sympathizing with Claire, as we drank my bottle of wine.

Sunday, 9 June 2013

Article: Cuba - Castro's Utopia

Are Cubans waiting for Fidel to die?  . 

As part of the 99% who are increasingly disillusioned with capitalism and democracy,  I looked forward to revisiting Cuba.   In 2010 I spent just 4 days in Havana,  but  fell in love with the faded retrospective ambience.   

Cubans had rejected consumerism and greed.   Everyone had food to eat and a roof over their heads.   Everyone was entitled to an education.  Everyone received health care in one of the best medical systems in the world.   They believed in equality.  

 Lack of material goods did not mean Cubans were poor.  Riches can be measured in so many different ways. 

In the evenings the citizens of Havana spill out into the streets to talk, to dance, to make music and to create art.   There is little crime – why steal when everyone has the same stuff that you have?   Everyone knows their neighbors, not only the people next door, but the people in the next street, the people in the next town.    A society that enjoyed life to the full without excessive consumption.

But on my return trip in March 2013 I found so many changes.   There were beggars on street corners.  And grumblings of discontent. ‘This is a hard country,’  muttered one beggar.  Had it always been a hard country? And was it only now as Fidel fades away that he felt able to speak out?   Everyone was an entrepreneur trying to make some extra money.  Street vendors pushed harder for sales, and  I was warned against walking in the back streets in Havana on my own.    Things are changing fast.

‘We don’t want to change our culture or way of life’  I was told, ‘Just the economy.’   How can you change one part without affecting the rest?    

‘The government pretends to pay us and we pretend to work’ I was told.   This is truer than ever before, now that the food rations have to be supplemented and the minimum wage isn’t sufficient.   The effort no longer goes into the Government day job, but into private enterprises.    Over half the population lives on remittances from relatives in Miami.

Farmers receive incentives to increase production.   The Government purchases 80% of their produce, and they are free to sell the remaining 20%.   Farmers are becoming wealthy and others are eyeing their largess with envy.   Policemen get paid more than doctors, but if you want proper treatment, you will need to bring the doctor a gift.   No one spoke about giving policeman gifts.   

Houses can now be bought and sold, but very few people have the money to buy a house.  So instead, there is a market for house swapping.   Interested parties meet in the main street on Saturday mornings and hopefully find a suitable swap, which can involve a cash payment or other goods. 

Fidel Castro tried to create Utopia.  Was he successful?  Would it have worked without Russian support? But now Cubans can't wait to move on.   There is a sense of a collective holding of breath, waiting for the government to change, for Cuba to open up and become a capitalist society, which Cubans optimistically think will solve all their problems!